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Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson was the main speaker at Wednesday's Berkshire Chamber event.
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Thompson invited chamber members to try their hand at figuring spending patterns.
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Mayor Richard Alcombright was the emcee. He also spoke on some of the public and private investment in the city.
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Chamber President Jonathan Butler said both Thompson and Alcombright had a vision and passion for improving the region.

Mass MoCA Hopes to Grow Economic Impact

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson points to a time when the city was No. 1 in too many bad things and its employment rate was 18.5 percent after the closure of Sprague Electric.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Clark Art Institute and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art have both expanded in space and attractive powers over the past few years.

Last year alone, nearly 400,000 people visited the growing campuses of North County's two premier museums. More than 150,000 — or 12 times the city's population — will visit the Mass MoCA campus alone this year.

That's a far cry from 30 years ago, when North Adams' unemployment rate stood at 18.5 percent and its first-rate ranking was for the worst, not the best, it could be.

"No. 1 was where North Adams found itself on the lists that you don't want to be on — period," said Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, pointing up to the large numbers displayed on the screen in the B10 Theatre on Wednesday night. "Everything from teenage pregnancy to unemployment to poverty to domestic violence."

What The New York Times called a "hard luck town with no future," will be welcoming anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 festivalgoers a day during the three-day Solid Sound Festival at the end of June. A not much smaller crowd will descend on the city in September for the annual FreshGrass Festival.

Officials say the 21-year-old museum has created 600 jobs and has a $21 million a year regional economic impact.

Jonathan Butler, president of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, said called the museum "a shining example" of the value of the private and public sector working together.

The overview of the museum and its future plans were the focus of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce Good News Business Salute for May. Normally held in the mornings, this month's event shook things up bit by being held in the late afternoon and taking place at the museum with Thompson as the keynote speaker. About 150 registered for the event, which was sponsored by Greylock Federal Credit Union and featured hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar.

Mayor Richard Alcombright was the master of ceremonies, introducing Thompson and pointing to some of the current and future investments in the city, including the Colegrove Park Elementary School opening this year, funding for design of Phase 1 of the Hoosic River Revival, the city's master plan, the Berkshire Scenic Railway, a plethora of private investment and Mass MoCA's expansive plans.

But while the city's unemployment rate has dropped by two-thirds, it's still higher than the state average, the mayor said.

"We are well on our way to rebuilding this city and this region," he said. "But it will take time, it will take capital and most of all, it will take each and every one of you.

"Ladies and gentleman, the city of North Adams is alive and well."

Thompson reiterated a message he's given plenty of times before: Get visitors to stay a weekend, not a day, and keep filling up the spaces within the "shoulder seasons."

His own calculations put the multiplier effect of between 4.4 and 6.7 on spending for visitors staying overnight compared to day-trippers. They eat out in more places, go to more venues, stay at hotels and spend more on stuff. That's the game-changer, he said.

"I think there are two kinds of effects .. one is sort of sacred, making it a better place for us all to live, a better place for our families ... the better it is to live here, the more people want to live here," he said, adding that was important with the forecast of a declining population. "On the profane side, we want to attract people to come ... they come and they spend."

There is a catch-22 in the amount of rooms available, though. In the peak season, it's tough to find a room, in the off-season, there's an excess of rooms. The goal is to pump up the off-seasons to make the investment in lodging worth it.

That's why MoCA schedules Wilco's semi-annual Solid Sound Festival in June, and FressGrass in September. The museum is also concentrating on performances and art installations that are particular to North Adams: "projects that can only happen here."

Thompson said the museum also is focusing on entertainment and education, particularly in growing a local audience through collaborations with local elementary schools that get class trips to the museum two or three times a year.

"We're building a good constituency," he said.

The more explicit growth will be the museum's $55 million project that will nearly double its exhibition space and develop long-term partnerships with a number of internationally known artists. The hope is to further connect the museum with the city and North Berkshire with the development of bike paths through the campus and loops that will bring visitors through the galleries and around to development at Western Gateway Heritage State Park and Marshall Street.

Getting some of those 150,000 visitors onto Main Street is critical. While storefronts are 75 percent occupied, having one of four empty is still too many, Thompson said.

"We've got a lot of work still to do."

The chamber also offered Good New Salutes to Barrington Stage Company of Pittsfield for its growth, critically praised productions and award-winning youth programming and to NBT Bank for its expansion and investment within Berkshire County.

Tags: Berkshire Chamber of Commerce,   Good News Salute,   mass moca,   

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